Document over Iraq war creates pre-election headache for Blair

Friday, April 29, 2005

LONDON -- In an embarrassing about-face ahead of elections, Prime Minister Tony Blair on Thursday released a secret memo warning of the legal consequences of invading Iraq without a second U.N. resolution.

Blair had long refused to publish the March 7, 2003, document from Attorney General Lord Goldsmith, saying it was confidential. Instead, the prime minister had consistently pointed to the written statement Goldsmith gave to parliament 10 days later, which said the war would be legal without another resolution.

Political opponents, who pressured Blair into releasing the text after it was leaked Wednesday night, said it showed the prime minister had deceived Britain.

Speaking to the House of Commons, Blair said last month that "If it is being said that the legal opinion of the attorney general was different from the attorney general's statement to the House, that is patently absurd."

The prime minister's main electoral opponent, Conservative leader Michael Howard, said Thursday that "If you can't trust Mr. Blair on the decision to take the country to war, the most important decision a prime minister can take, how can you trust Mr. Blair on anything else ever again?"

Blair insisted Goldsmith's advice had been consistent.

"Whatever I say, I will never, ever convince some people who have been opposed to this war," said Blair. "I cannot apologize for that decision because I still think the world is a better place" with Saddam Hussein in prison.

Opinion polls show Blair's Labour Party with a solid lead before the May 5 election but Blair's about-face could derail the final days of his election campaign.

Goldsmith's 13-page memo to Blair warns the government it would be safer to go to war with a second U.N. Security Council resolution specifically authorizing military action. It also warned that British troops taking part in the conflict could be open to legal action.

Ten days later, Goldsmith said the war would be legal without a further resolution. Opponents insist there is a clear difference between Goldsmith's views in the March 7 and March 17 documents, and question whether the attorney general was leaned on politically.

Howard, who has branded Blair a liar, said the document reinforced doubts about Blair's integrity and ability to lead the country.

"Mr. Blair has said that the attorney general's advice to the Cabinet on the 17th March was 'very clear' that the war was legal, and that the attorney general had not changed his mind," Howard said. "It is obvious that he did. So what the public must now have an answer to is this: what, or who, changed the attorney general's mind?"

Blair had refused to publish the memo, arguing as late as Wednesday night that it would set a dangerous precedent to release confidential legal advice.

"You have probably got it all anyway. I see no reason not to publish it," he said Thursday. "The key thing was the attorney general advising it was lawful to proceed. This so-called smoking gun has turned out to be a damp squib, because he did advise it was lawful to proceed."

Polls show Labour with a healthy lead. A survey conducted by pollster ICM for Thursday's edition of The Guardian newspaper put Labour support at 40 percent, with the Conservatives at 33 percent and the Liberal Democrats at 20 percent. The margin of error was 3 percentage points.

Blair, Howard and Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy were to appear together on a British Broadcasting Corp. panel program later Thursday. The broadcaster said they would not debate one another but would answer audience members' questions separately.

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